Posted by: Rob Viens | April 14, 2013

Black River, White Bay

On the 13th of April Darwin reached the Rio Negro – located just south of Bahia Blanca (where he had spent some time collecting fossils and riding with gauchos last fall). He describes the arrival below:

“In the morning we were off the mouth of the Rio Negro. Nothing was to be seen of the Schooner. In vain we endeavoured, by firing a gun & hoisting a pilot signal to procure intelligence from the shore. — We suppose the sea on the bar prevented the pilot from coming out. — Thus during the whole day we continued to cruize backwards & forwards. — It was exceedingly annoying; as every one was most anxious to hear that Wickham & his party were all well. — The coast is like, what we saw so much of, about Bahia Blanca, either sandy dunes or a horizontal line of low cliffs. (April 13)

The mouth of the Rio Negro is located on a headland near the modern city of Viedma, Argentia, on the northern border of the Rio Negro Provence. Upstream of the coast, the river flows for 550 km (342 mi) from where it “forms” at the convergence of the Limay and Neuquén rivers/tributaries. It drains just over 100,000 km2 (~39,000 mi2) of land surface (its drainage basin) and has an average discharge of about 760 m3 per second (~30,000 cubit feet per second). Today the river is an important source of irrigation for Argentinean fruit orchards and vineyards, and also provides “fuel” for several hydroelectric dam projects. In Darwin’s time the town of Viedma was a small Spanish fort, that had just been established in 1779 (making it the oldest settlement in Patagonia).

Map of the Rio Negro and surrounding parts of Argentina (from Instituto Geográfico Militar) – Click map for a larger image:

Rio Negro Argentina

Just a quick review of all the survey vessels Darwin refers to, in order  to remind everyone what he is talking about. Aside from the Beagle, FitzRoy had purchased at leat three other boats to help with the survey work:

  1. The La Paz and La Lièvre were purchased and fixed up last fall in Bahia Blanca.  They were left with Mr. Wickham and Mr. Stokes to continue surveying the coast. They were last seen by the Beagle on its way to Tierra del Fuego last December.
  2. The Adventure (formerly the Unicorn) was recently purchased in the Falklands and set sail for the mainland a few days before the Beagle under the command of Mr Chaffers.

On the 14th, the Beagle finally found the Adventure, thought the La Paz and La Lièvre were still unaccounted for:

“In the middle of the day, a Sail was seen a long way off in the SW. — We immediately made chace & soon found to our joy it was the Schooner. — Mr Chaffers came on board & reported that the Schooner had made good weather of it; but that the gales had been very heavy. — The Captain altered his plans & ordered Mr Chaffers to proceed directly on to Maldonado in the Rio Plata, & there wait our arrival.” (April 14)

The search for the two smaller boats would have to wait. It is amazing, when you really think about it, that after several months apart it was even possible for  ships to meet up along a remote section of the coastline.  It was not like today where a cell phone, GPS or internet connection can help people meet up anywhere, anytime. There were no such lines of communication in 1833, so the men had to rely entirely on plans made several months ago and the word of passing ships to figure out how to find their friends. It was not always perfect, but still pretty impressive. (RJV)

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